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Obama Inc. - Web activism for profit

A few months after Barack Obama's historic election, and a couple of weeks after the release of Barry Libert's and Rick Faulk's book Obama Inc. (and, of course, Obama's inauguration), the first start-ups are popping up that directly apply some of the wide

David Reece

A few months after Barack Obama’s historic election, and a couple of weeks after the release of Barry Libert’s and Rick Faulk’s book Obama Inc. (and, of course, Obama's inauguration), the first start-ups are popping up that directly apply some of the widely heralded business lessons emerging from the innovative campaign. The fact that most of these lessons lie in the marketing domain supports the view I’ve expressed earlier and on numerous occasions: 1) Marketing will (again) become the number one change agent in business, 2) when it follows the new rules of “marketing with meaning,” that is, marketing which (simply put) consistently creates added social value – not as an afterthought but a sine qua non. While marketing has always been the art of turning friends into customers and customers into friends, it is now the art of finding, befriending, and “activating” the like-minded for a common cause, for the common good, for profit. Marketing, as the “voice” of business, is THE interface in a time when interface is everything. Marketing is the software. And software drives the value of products.

A recent example of this kind of Obama Inc. start-up, San Francisco-based firm Virgance, was featured in the Economist this week, and the article indicates that social impact in an activism 2.0 world is shifting from a welcome side benefit to an integral component in the business models of Internet entrepreneurs. The new kids on the web have internalized the lessons from the Obama campaign, and now they want to make a difference, too – and money. The Economist describes Virgance’s model as “for-profit-activism.” Named after a plot device in Star Wars, the company aims to support social causes through a multi-pronged campaign platform that resembles the way Obama for America mobilized its supporters, and it typically consists of four core elements: a web-empowered volunteer network, a presence on Facebook, a team of paid bloggers to promote the campaigns, and YouTube viral videos. Among the first Virgance-supported campaigns are 1BOG (“one block off the grid” – aiming to convince homeowners to switch to solar energy), Carrotmobs (public contests that incentivize retailers to become green), and Lend Me Some Sugar (based on the Facebook application that gives users virtual sugar cubes for donations to a cause of their choice).

Virgance is not the first for-profit-do-gooder of course; there have been plenty of others whose business model combines bottom line thinking with social value: the Economist, for example, puts Virgance in a line with Project RED. But Virgance is more like Facebook Causes. It adopts the forces of “Here Comes Everybody” and builds its entire business on a social web platform, embracing the principles of open-source, mass collaboration, and transparency: “If a for-profit company did the type of work that non-profits often do, but did it more efficiently, would people trust it the same way they trust non-profits?” the Virgance web site describes the company’s ambitious mission. ”What if everything the company did was completely transparent? What if it was open source? If we can create this kind of company, and succeed, how many other companies would follow our example? Along the way, could we change the face of the business world itself?”

Does that language sound familiar? The Obamapreneurs are adept at turning their campaigns into movements. Clearly, the Obamanization of business – both in terms of substance and style – has arrived in reality, and we will see more Obama Inc.’s in 2009.

On February 27-28, IESE Business School will gather entrepreneurs, scientists, foundations, and corporations at its annual student-run Doing Good and Doing Well conference in Barcelona. It’ll be interesting to see how the Obama gem will make its way into the more old-school world of CSR (corporate social responsibility).